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Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American novelist and short-story writer who lived during the antebellum era. He once called himself the "obscurest man in American letters" (Wright 3). Regardless, his remarkable achievements as a short-story writer and novelist have earned him a permanent place in American literature. In a study of Hawthorne, Henry James referred to him as "the most valuable example of the American genius" (James 1). The object of this paper is to investigate the veracity of this argument. Additionally, this paper endeavors to analyze one of Hawthorne’s famous works, The Scarlet Letter, and how this makes Hawthorne an original and most significant fiction writer of the antebellum period. Essentially, Nathaniel Hawthorne goes down in American history as one of the most original, outstanding writers whose works reflect his profound genius.
Hawthorne as an American Genius
In his research of Hawthorne’s life and work, it was evident that Henry James was fascinated and impressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among the many praises that he gave to Hawthorne, he stated: “The importance of the literature may be questioned, but at any rate, in the field of letters, Hawthorne is the most valuable example of the American genius” (James 1). The position of this paper is that statement is true and hence, a valid characterization for Hawthorne.
Hawthorne’s contribution to American literature is arguably unprecedented. His understanding of literature was so profound that he was able to express his intentions wholly and without reservations, ambiguities, or vagueness. He was able to access the deep recesses of the human psychology, which enabled him to supplement his writings with a more natural and unprecedented perspective. In this way, he demonstrated his genius in literature.
An additional affirmation of Hawthorne’s American genius is the fact that his fellow Americans have made references to his works for a longstanding period. To date, Hawthorne’s work remains relevant. It is included in school curriculums and widely discussed in relation to literary works. Notably, Henry James makes a reference of the same in his writing on Hawthorne. “He is the writer to whom his countrymen most confidently point when they wish to make a claim to have enriched the mother-tongue, and, judging from present appearance, he will long occupy this honorable position” (James 1). In Hawthorne’s line of work, and especially during his time, there was a prevalent plainness or dullness reflected in other literary works. For this reason, his work distinguished him as superior to the others; hence, the reference of ‘American genius’.
Hawthorne was able to stand out in his works as attributed to his distinction from the larger American society. As an individual and writer, he was modest, simple, subtle and unpretentious. Conversely, the American society has always been characterized as the greatest civilization worldwide. The fact that Hawthorne was able to write about oddities and unconventionalities in such an honest and original manner made him a genius of sorts in the American society; he was a rare in the most commendable form.
Hawthorne’s short stories and novels portray speculations concerning justification, belief, and truth as well as a deep incorporeal skepticism. His works have their foundations in the darkest places of a person’s should along with alienation, intolerance, punishment, crime, and general society. Through his writings, Hawthorne was able to overlay the Romantic view of New England and his family’s dark history using the legacy of Puritan fanaticism with religion and sin, scarlet letters, goodwives, ‘goodmen’, and houses with seven gables and establish a bona fide type of America literature (Wright 45). His American genius manifests in his ability to create his own style of literature that has transcended through the ages to date. Notably, the most important and pertinent manifestation of his genius lies in his unprecedented understanding of the deeper psychology of mankind and his ability to express this in such an honest and unsullied manner.
The Scarlet Letter
The originality in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is so profound and undeniable that it qualifies him to be the most significant fiction writer of the antebellum period. The Scarlet Letter is arguably the most impressive of Hawthorne’s works. It embodies the charming nature of the unconscious and presents deep level of genius. “There is an originality about The Scarlet Letter that cannot and should not be denied” (Hawthorne and Harding 1). Through The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne makes a personal endeavor to tackle the demons of his own past. Notably, Hawthorne’s original name was Hathorne, which he changed to escape the legacy of his predecessors who were infamous for partaking in the Salem trials. This was his scarlet letter and makes the book original by virtue of its affiliation with his own life story. The scarlet letter altered Hester’s life drastically. “It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity and enclosing her in a sphere by herself” (Hawthorne 82).
Moreover, Hawthorne’s skill in writing The Scarlet Letter is original in his approach towards handling the character of Hester. Despite the narrator’s endeavors to villainize Hester for committing adultery, the reader cannot help but perceive her as a heroine. One author mentioned: “She is the most glorious creation of fiction that has ever crossed our path” (Hawthorne and Harding 1). The originality and expertise that Hawthorne uses to create such a paradoxical conundrum for the reader makes him the most significant fiction writer of the antebellum period. ‘Her nature was not of the order that escapes from too intense suffering with a swoon; her spirit could only shelter itself beneath a stony crust of insensibility” (Hawthorne 104).
Hawthorne’s work in The Scarlet Letter sets his apart from his fellow writers of the antebellum period because his approach to fiction writing was unique. His very perception of the nature of fiction was largely different from the rest. According to Hawthorne, fiction is supposed to depict truth. He uses The Scarlet Letter to portray real human experiences in the glory of all its failures, weaknesses, mistakes, and courage among others. “Hawthorne was concerned fundamentally not with the idiosyncrasies of individual behavior in any immediate locality at any one time, but with the abstractions, the general truths about human behavior” (Roper 69). Notably, this is an original approach to fiction that distinguished him as the most significant fiction writer of his time.
One of the most original elements of the book is Hawthorne’s approach to addressing the character of Chillingworth and how he becomes increasingly filled with such malice and contempt that is so profoundly pristine in consideration of the antebellum period. Chillingworth’s transformation from a reasonably decent human being to a vindictive and heartless creature is unlike anything portrayed in works of fiction during the antebellum period. The narrator describes Chillingsworth as Satan’s emissary who had infiltrated Arthur’s life so cunningly. “This diabolical agent had the Divine permission, for a season, to burrow into the clergyman’s intimacy, and plot against his soul” (Hawthorne 191). Hawthorne presents the transformation in Chillingsworth as being nearly inconceivable. “Hester Pryne looked at the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over his features- how much uglier they were, how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen” (Hawthorne 167).
Conclusively, Hawthorne is one of the most renowned writers of the antebellum period. His novel approach to writing was a primary distinguishing factor from his competitors. It made him compelling to his audience. Particularly, his approach to fiction that includes the narration of actual human experiences and behaviors was the reason why he is the most significant fiction writer of his time. More importantly, James’ portrayal of Hawthorne as an American genius was valid.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, and Brian Harding. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. USA: Ticknor, Reed & Fields. 1850. Online Source.
James, Henry. Hawthorne. (n.d.),
Roper, Gordon. The originality of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.(n.d.),
Wright, Sarah B. Critical Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2007. Internet resource.
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